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Compassion at the Mirror

Why it really works!

Photo by Tiko Giorgadze on Unsplash
Photo by Tiko Giorgadze on Unsplash

You’re standing in front of the bathroom mirror saying “I love you,” “Today is a new beginning,” or “You’re gonna rock this interview.”  We’ve all done it. When we look in the mirror, we can choose to offer ourselves criticism or reassurance and kindness. The obvious choice is love. But does it really work?

Repeating positive affirmations in front of a mirror as a way to increase self-acceptance has been extensively described and recommended for years in numerous psychology books, websites, and self-help resources, most notably Louise Hay’s Mirror Work, but its effectiveness has not been empirically tested—until recently.

Self-compassion practices now play a central role in the growing fields of mindfulness and meditation. Therapeutic approaches, such as Compassion Focused Therapy (Gilbert, 2014) and Mindful Self-Compassion training (Neff & Germer, 2013), have been developed with the aim of increasing self-compassion as an antidote to self-criticism. One of the practices is compassionate self-talk, in which people are asked to become aware of the content and emotional tone of their internal dialogue when they face setbacks, and then to intentionally make their self-talk more compassionate, encouraging, and non-judgmentally accepting. Creating compassionate self-statements after self-criticism has been found to increase positive feelings, without undermining people’s willingness to accept responsibility for the negative actions (Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen, & Hancock, 2007). Generating and reading aloud positive self-statements, instead of neutral ones, has been shown to reduce self-deprecatory thoughts and increase self-esteem in a group of low self-esteem subjects (Lange, Richard, Gest, Vries, & Lodder, 1998).

Having compassion for our own distress has been found to strengthen our ability to refocus and consciously activate self-regulation systems that create feelings of safety as opposed to feelings of threat and distress. These self-soothing activities operate through the stimulation of particular types of positive emotion like contentment, safeness, and lovability that are associated with our innate motivations for caring and attachment.

In research, feeling safe is measured by increased heart rate variability (HRV), which reflects the dynamic balancing of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and is linked to the regulation of the fight/flight response. Higher HRV is associated with a greater ability to self-soothe when stressed, and greater capacity to act compassionately toward others by facilitating engagement with the suffering (in ourselves and others), while inhibiting the distress-related tendencies to fight with or withdraw from suffering.  Interestingly, research finds that that increased HRV is specifically connected to the emotional state of compassion and not to positive emotions in general (Stellar, Cohen, Oveis, & Keltner, 2015),

Can the mirror amplify the effects of compassionate self-talk?

The capacity of mirrors to induce a state of self-focused attention has made them useful tools for studying self-awareness and self-focusing. But research on the general effects of mirror exposure has found mixed results. In teaching people to use mirrors as a meditation tool, I am struck by how unkind people can be to themselves when they first look in the mirror. The mirror tends to magnify our internal state, and looking at yourself without a clear intention often evokes self-critical inner dialogue as a default. Can a mirror be useful as a therapeutic conduit for compassionate self-talk?

Nicola Petrocchi and colleagues (2017) set out to answer that question. They conducted a study to test whether a mirror could enhance the efficacy of compassionate self-talk. The research participants were asked to generate four phrases they would use to soothe and encourage their best friend. Then they were asked describe an episode in which they criticized themselves and were assigned to one of three conditions: (1) to repeat the four phrases to themselves while looking at the mirror; or (2) repeat the four phrases to themselves without the mirror; or (3) look at themselves in the mirror without repeating the phrases.

Here are some examples of compassion phrases:

  • The parts of yourself that you don’t like are parts of you that need your attention and love.
  • You’ve been strong in the past, and you will be able to find your strength now too.
  • I’m here and I will be here forever; I’ll always try to help you in any way possible.
  • Think about all the positive things that you did and will do.

The results of the study showed that participants who said the phrases in the mirror reported higher levels of soothing positive emotions. They also had more heart rate variability (HRV) compared to participants in the other two conditions. So it appears the mirror does boost the soothing effects of compassionate self-talk.

Why does the mirror amplify compassionate self-talk?

Compassion involves our hardwired self-regulation system that enables us to approach suffering instead of fighting or fleeing – that is, we orient outside of ourselves to see suffering and are then moved to act to alleviate it. So compassionate self-talk might be amplified by the use of a mirror as a way to externalize the object of our compassion (i.e. the self). The mirror might also magnify the effects of positive self-talk because eye-gaze and facial expressions are salient components of our empathic responses (Cowan, Vanman, & Nielsen, 2014). Considering that self-related stimuli (e.g. our own face) are more relevant to us than stimuli related to others, and that our sense of self seems to be inherently linked to our own face, looking at our own eyes and face while experiencing compassion towards ourselves seems to impact our psychophysiology more than just verbalizing self-compassionate phrases.

Try it for yourself

Make a list of positive, soothing, compassionate phrases or sentences that you would say to comfort a beloved friend, or those phrases and sentences that you’d most like to hear when you’re feeling upset or down. Have them handy and say them to yourself in the mirror when you need a boost in self-compassion. Then try saying these phrases to a loved one while looking into her or his eyes when the person needs some calming and reassurance.

And consider this: Before you begin your compassionate self-talk in the mirror, simply notice the general emotional tone that your reflection evokes in you as you look at yourself. And see if you can have compassion for your lack of compassion.

Learn more self-compassion mirror exercises here.

Copyright 2019, Tara Well, PhD. Originally published in Psychology Today.

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